Jigs, Wigs and Worlds

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“Hi Chris. There’s a thing called Irish Dancing on Tuesdays in White Plains. I can take the kids after school and you can pick them up after work. There’s even a parade,” offered Megan Donovan to Christine Amoriello over the phone. The two mothers thought nothing would be cuter than watching their daughters hop around on stage together. What they didn’t know was that behind the family-friendly performances was a world of extreme commitment and unrelenting competition. Those words represent the embarkment of Kaylie Amoriello ’17 on a journey to the 2016 World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

Amoriello began dancing at age six at the O’Rourke Academy of Irish Dance. There were practices Tuesdays and Thursdays in a church basement, the parade on St. Patrick’s Day, and a recital at the end of the year. The experience can only be described as laid-back and fun, however, the next year was different. Suddenly the Amoriellos were thrown into the unknown world of wigs, two thousand dollar dresses, sock glue, and crazy dance moms. Nothing could prepare them for the competitive dance world they were about to enter. There are six skill-levels: beginner, advanced beginner, novice, prizewinner, preliminary championships, and open championships. In order to move up levels, the dancers participate in local competitions, which are traditionally called feises.

Even though Amoriello had only a year of dance experience under her belt, she was successful at the feises, often landing herself at the top of the podium. She swiftly moved up the levels until she reached prelim, qualifying herself for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships, also known as The Oireachtas. Amoriello crushed her first major competition, exceeding expectations and winning 22nd place out of over 100 dancers. At the time, she was the highest placing dancer in the school’s 12 year history.  “It was nerve racking because I didn’t know what to expect,” explained Amoriello. At only eight years old, she was overjoyed and expectant of the road ahead. The next year, however, she placed 24th. The setback, while minor, was still a disappointment, yet Amoriello refused to give up. Amoriello spent the next year training in the studio and at home, hoping to move up into the top 20. Her hard work was rewarded when she then placed fourth out of over 120 dancers and qualified for the 2012 World Championships. “It’s the biggest competition, and it was my first time going overseas,” remarked Amoriello. Since she was one of the highest placing dancers in the school, she became well-known in the dance community. Amoriello’s first years as a competitive dancer were relatively smooth sailing, allowing her to develop a true passion for the sport with very few challenges. She would not experience true hardship until a few years later.

Like all athletes, Amoriello’s journey in Irish Dance has been peppered with tremendous accomplishment, but also devastating disappointment. What sets her apart from other athletes is her resilience, refusal to give up, and ultimate rise again to the top. “One year I didn’t recall at the oireachtas,” admitted Amoriello, “and then nationals I didn’t recall either.” Recalling, in Irish Dance language, means making it to the final round of the championships. Amoriello’s confidence was shaken and she knew something had to change. In December 2013 she and her family made the life-changing decision to transfer to the number one ranked Irish dance school in the world, the Doherty-Petri School of Irish Dance. “We just needed to try something new and see how that turned out,” she stated. The hardest part was leaving her school of origin, The O’Rourke School, which was a close-knit second family. However, the tears and heartbreak of leaving were worth the world class and highly sophisticated instruction. “My new teachers continue to have us drill things in order to perfect it,” commented Amoriello, clearly pleased with their teaching style. She also stated that being at a top school with such high standards and the opportunity to dance besides World Champions pushed her to do better. By November of 2015, known in the world of Irish Dance as “Oireachtas time,” she was a completely different dancer.

Fast forward to the Oireachtas Awards ceremony. Amoriello is nervously waiting to hear her exact placement in the fierce competition with over 100 participants. She had been at her new school for two years.  She had trained hard, had successes at smaller competitions, and had been showing signs of being good enough to once again reach the top of Irish Dancing: to qualify for the World Championships.  At that moment, as she nervously awaits the results, it is the most important thing to her in her life.  Suddenly a voice booms out of the microphone announcing the top ten dancers in the competition, who have all qualified for the world championships. “Competitor number 103,” voices the announcer, breaking the silence. Her number is called! Amoriello and surrounding friends and family burst into a frenzy of excitement and congratulations. In less than three years Amoriello went from not placing, to winning 9th out of 140 dancers in the Mid-Atlantic Region. “Qualifying for worlds for the first time in a long time made me very excited,” commented Amoriello. “It made me feel like the work and time I put into it paid off.” Worlds is the biggest competition of the year and qualifying gets harder as each dancer progresses and gains experience. “I’m excited to compete at worlds again because I haven’t in awhile, and it’s in Scotland where my first worlds was,” offered Amoriello, “It’s like doing everything over again.” Few athletes are able to earn themselves a fresh start as Amoriello has through her hard work and determination. “Just continuing to take comments and criticism that I got from judges and my teachers and working on those and not getting frustrated,” responded Amoriello when asked the secret to her success.

Amoriello, who has now been dancing for a decade, has traveled all over the country and world in high-level competitions. She has been to Tennessee, Florida, California, Illinois, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland over her career and expects to continue traveling and competing for as long as she can. In preparation for the upcoming world’s in March she has to practice three to four times a week in Long Island as well as weekend workshops. In early February, she, along with other qualified dancers from the school, flew to Belfast, Ireland for 10 days for an intensive Irish-American world’s boot camp. “It was a lot of practice, a lot of stretching, and a lot of doing different drills,” described Amoriello. She is overjoyed at the opportunity to compete against the best dancers in the world, the competition being one of her favorite aspects of the sport. “If I didn’t dance, I don’t think I would see things the same way,” admitted Amoriello.

Even though Amoriello has had to make great sacrifices to pursue her passion for dance, such as missing birthday parties and having to quit other sports, it has all been worth it. The Irish dance world, the people who comprise it, and the dancing itself have become a cherished part of herself. “It’s taught me to not give up because if you don’t do well and you have disappointments, you can’t just stop, you have to just keep going and give it everything you have,” relayed Amoriello, reflecting on the lessons dance have taught her. While the Irish Dance World is foreign to most Americans, it embodies passion, determination, and friendship for Amoriello.

by Kate Donovan